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Faustian Bargains

There are two stories of Germany and Jews: the culture of assimilated German Jews and the meeting of German culture with Jewish religion

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Goethe Schiller monument in Weimar, Germany. (David Ortmann/Flickr)

Religious Jews regard Heine with well-founded suspicion, but as a late-in-life returnee to Jewish observance, I found Heine’s account of his tortuous path an inspiration, and I suspect that other Jews undertaking tshuvah might do so as well. Because Heine worked his way out of cultural assimilation from the inside, his critique of the culture is all the more thorough. “Away with heathen musica!” he wrote one in a deathbed poem. “Let David’s pious harp-strains accompany my song of praise. My song resounds, Hallelujah!”

In Heine’s generation conversion to Protestantism was the “price of a ticket to European culture.” Heine’s inner Jew raged against his Babylonian captivity until he emerged triumphant on the poet’s deathbed. A generation after his death in 1856, though, German acceptance of the Jewish presence produced a more insidious form of assimilation. Jews no longer were excluded from university positions. Between 1880 and World War I, Hermann Cohen was Germany’s pre-eminent philosopher as well as its foremost Jewish public intellectual. His famous defense of Judaism in 1880 against the anti-Semitism of Heinrich von Treitschke claimed that Jewish “ethical monotheism” anticipated the ethics of Kant and therefore was compatible with German culture. Like the Reform Jews, who repudiated the Election of Israel and the hope of a coming Messiah, Cohen hoped to get round the scandal of Jewish particularity.

Cohen died in 1918. When the 23-year-old Joseph Soloveitchik arrived in Berlin eight years later, he hoped to write a dissertation on Maimonides but could not find an adviser. Instead he wrote about Cohen, to the lasting benefit of Jewish thinking. The new German science of the 1920s had made a shambles of Cohen’s deterministic world. In The Halakhic Mind, Soloveitchik announced an historic opportunity in the ruin of Kantian objectivity. The end of the Newtonian determinism “has helped deliver the philosopher from his bondage to the mathematical sciences.” He praised the Danish physicist Niels Bohr for “exploiting Heisenberg’s Indeterminacy Principle to [undertake] the refutation of the time-hallowed myth of the insularity of the physical world.”

If the downfall of determinism removes a stumbling-block to religious philosophy, what would constitute a Jewish philosophy of religion? Not, argued the Rav, Maimonides’ attempt to explain the commandments by external criteria. That would reduce religion to “the handmaiden of ethics,” a “means to the realization of a ‘higher’ end.” And surely not through Hermann Cohen’s approach, whose “main trends are Kantian and not Jewish.” Soloveitchik concludes, “There is only a single source from which a Jewish philosophical Weltanschauung could emerge; the objective order—the Halakhah.” The subject of Jewish philosophy is not the “why” of the commandments—that is autonomous—but rather the “how.” Deep investigation of the “how” might “penetrate the basic structures of our religious consciousness. We might also evolve cognitive tendencies and aspects of our world interpretation and gradually grasp the mysteries of the religious halakhic act.”

Soloveitchik’s sketch of a Jewish philosophy of religion remains on the unfinished agenda of Modern Orthodoxy. It is a gauge of how lonely he was in this endeavor that The Halakhic Mind did not appear until 1986, and only in the version in which the Rav had left the manuscript in 1944, without a new introduction, let alone additional notes.

By the time that Martin Heidegger bested Cohen’s disciple Ernst Cassirer at their celebrated 1929 Davos debate, the old order of Kantian objectivity was in ruins. Heidegger shortly thereafter joined the Nazi party and became the rector of the University of Freiburg. So cleverly did he argue the case for radical subjectivity that his Jewish students Leo Strauss and Hannah Arendt never broke free of his spell. The great upheavals in German culture terminate in Heidegger, who is all the more dangerous, and all the more persuasive, for offering a secular philosophy that pretends to accomplish what religion did not. Heidegger’s account of non-Being in his famous lecture “What is Metaphysics?” is a prolonged paraphrase of Mephistopheles. If Greek philosophy said that we cannot think rationally about something that does not exist, Heidegger said, we nonetheless can feel non-Being, through boredom, fear, and anxiety.

Where it inclined toward Judaism, the German Classic tried to translate the Bible into secular wisdom. And the dreadful outcome of the project should stand as a warning to Jews that our Scriptures cannot be sold retail in the secular world: They remain our bridge to the God of Abraham, the living heritage of his enduring family.

For evil as well as good, all the great issues of modernity came to a head in Germany. Despite Germany’s descent into barbarism and ruin during World War II, these issues have not gone away. Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (1988) quipped that American intellectuals were singing from a cheat sheet, with bad English translations of German originals. Jews sing from their own book, to be sure. But we cannot quite make sense of what modern Jewish religious belief has become—for better as well as for worse—without retracing our steps through German intellectual history. And we cannot advance the religious agenda set forth by some of our best thinkers of the past century without making sense of what they learned in Berlin.

David P. Goldman is a senior editor at First Things magazine and the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online.

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The irony of the reform Jews and the revolutionary Jews in the 19th century is that they were the first to jump on the bandwagon of anti-nationalism, mostly because that was the best way to fit in. We all know how that turned out. Now one one of the reasons that Israel is hated by some in Europe is because Nationalism is out of fashion and Israel is viewed as some sort of dinosaur. Maybe the lesson here is that we should do what is best for us without wondering what the rest of the world thinks.

Ruth Gutmann says:

Mr. Goldman occasionally substitutes his opinions for the historical facts. I only wish to mention that Leo Baeck was a German, not an Eastern Jew. But it is not my purpose to claim that that made him either better or worse

David Goldman says:

Ms. Gutmann,
Baeck was born in Posen, a Polish territory acquired by Prussia at the end of the 18th century and returned to Poland after World War II. Wikipedia lists him as a “German-Polish-Jewish” rabbi.

allan siegel says:

Is this an article about how to make a scrambled egg? Maybe Mr. Goldman’s mental GPS can’t follow destinations or is stuck on some endless interstate of half-baked opinion with an occasional pit-stop filled with tidbits of information. Precisely, what are you trying to say?

Michael says:

A fascinating essay. The story of Jewish assimilation and unrequited love for Germany has been told many times. But the story how the committed Jews, including what we call today orthodoxy, used German/secular culture to try to understand their own identity is certainly original, and would make the theme of a book I certainly will love reading.

Get out of my head, David Goldman! This is the milieu and era I think about constantly, so your article made for a highly enjoyable subway ride. I’m currently reading Gershom Scholem’s book about his buddy Walter Benjamin. Did you know the latter was distantly related to Heine? I’m also thinking about doing my MA thesis on Rosenzweig and Modernism.

Would you hypothesize any historic/identity parallels between German Jews and American Jews? How is it that (the German-born, American-raised) Ludwig Lewisohn went through the same conversion process as Rosenzweig, at a similar time?

David Goldman says:

Lewisohn and Walter Benjamin have not been my areas of study, but any time spent with Franz Rosenzweig is worthwhile. For all his lacunae, Rosenzweig was a genius. There is more to be gleaned in his smallest asides than in the main arguments of many another author. My only caution would be not to rely on translation but to read Rosenzweig in the original.

JCarpenter says:

Interesting comparison of Job’s story with the Faust legend; how much more encouraging is Job’s statement of faith—the anti-Faust, having all taken away by the devil—”I know my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my body has been destroyed, yet in my flesh, I shall see God.”
Thanks for the article;
Peace and Light–JC

The most important and critical part of this artice is a message for American Jews. Buying in to the dominant culture at the expense of first and foremost comeplete identification as Jew completely is they you too wi be lost to Jewish History.

Most Jews didn’t get out of Egypt. Most didn’t get out of Babylon. Most didn’t get out of Persia. And most didn’t get out of Europe. When you disconnect from the 4,000 year inexcorable journey of the Jewish Peope to your Tribal Homeland, you disconnect from our history and at best become an article lamenting your ultimate irrelevancy.

And it’s happening before your eyes. Becoming chic youtube Heeb’s is no substitue for the fullness of being Jews in your Land, speaking your Language, living your Traditions and becoming One with your Ancient Elders and your G-d.

All the rationalizations and self-serving Hellenistic living cannot overcome these truths. And it’s happening before your eyes!

Simple as it is.

Dietz Ziechmann says:

The 17th Century saw the awarekening of the Jewish Enlightenment in Germany. The 19th century saw the birth of pro-Jewish Protestant biblical scholarship there and the begiinings of the Reform Movement. Reform de-cannonized the Talmud for itself and denounced nationalism for itself and others, but it fatefully didn’t redact the bloody, ruthless genocide in that palimsest of literature the Torah, nor did it lead in a long-over due redaction of the New Testament with its peculiar undertones and overtones of Judeophobia and anti-Jewishism. Yet, therefore Christians and other non-Jews continued to read these texts and derive unconsconscious or subsconscious Judeophobia from them which was never removed, because never fully explicated and never fully countered. Non-Jews tended to regard antagonism towards non-Jews as continuing to be active because it was not removed from Torah passages, after all treated ritually as sacred “Instruction” as it continues to be a source for some political Zionists, even the atheists who founded and continue leadership in the present-day “State of Israel”. Add to that the prominent, if generally “secular” element, often clandestine, sometimes flamboyant,of Jewish leadership in the violent “Red” revolutionary movement and one can see sources of ongoing Judeophobia. Jay Michelson offers a new paradigm of non-dualistic Judaism, which helps, but a new, highly redacted edition the Bible (both “Testaments” explained and an addition explaining he core foundation of Islam)needs to be produced and distributed in multiple languages throughout the many countries of the Abrahamic world before we shall see a truly messianic olam haba, an Eschaton, an “End of Days”, a trully secure and wholisic state in the Near/Middle East honoring the best of Jewish and Zionist (to say nothing of “Christian” and “Islamic” ideals). A gigant task, but less work than tracking down all terrorists in the world. B’shalom,l’shalom. Dietz Ziechmann, Cleveland Heights, Ohio

a small point: i do not think that rabbi soloveitchik ever studied with rabbi y.y. weinberg–if you know of a reliable source which has otherwise, please let me know

WFB, I was careful not to say that Rabbi Soloveitchik studied with Rabbi Weinberg, but rather that he was his mentor–that is, he looked out for the young Soloveitchik during his student years and kept in contact with the Soloveitchik family in Lithuania. I learned this from students of R. Soloveitchik.

Mike Weber says:

The “Mercedes” Benz is named after a Jewish girl.

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Faustian Bargains

There are two stories of Germany and Jews: the culture of assimilated German Jews and the meeting of German culture with Jewish religion

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